About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
North Korea tour operators told NK News on Tuesday that they believe the country won’t open its borders for tourists until at least some time in 2021 — far longer than was expected when the COVID-19 novel coronavirus emerged in January.
North Korea was the first country to stop international travel almost six months ago. Now, travel company representatives said Pyongyang’s conservative approach to health epidemics means a longtime border closure is now likely on the horizon.
“I’ve spoken to my partners at the DPRK embassy in Beijing, consulate members in Dandong and to my direct partners in Pyongyang, and they’re expecting North Korean borders to reopen early next year,” said Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours.
“I’ve heard that, once North Korean borders do reopen, masks will be essential for all travelers coming into North Korea and [they will have to bring] vaccine certificates,” Beard added.
However, North Korea’s vice minister of public health told the Tokyo-based Choson Sinbo in February that, until a means to diagnose and cure the novel coronavirus is “completely” developed, the borders will likely remain closed.
Considering that nobody knows when a majority of the global population will be vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s unclear whether tourists will actually be able to enter North Korea in early 2021.
But the minister’s hardline stance on reopening the border may be changing, according to Carl Meadows of the U.K.-based Regent Tours.
“With the realization that we could be dealing with COVID-19 for far longer than almost all of us anticipated, the initial message we were receiving back in January — which took the line of, ‘We will wait for a cure [or] vaccine’ — seems to be waning,” he said.
“There is now ambiguous talk of opening ‘when it is safe’ — a slight shift in stance,” he said.
North Korea’s “reactive” approach to news about the virus meant that external factors would play a big role in determining when the border opens, said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours.
“If the situation in China gets to true normality, then maybe that will lead to an opening to people in China first maybe, or maybe to anyone,” he said. “That said, the Chinese borders are de facto closed to almost everyone — so, until they open, it doesn’t count for much.”
Because of that, an opening date “could be spring [of 2021], it could be July, it could be 2022,” Cockerell said. “Nobody knows at all is the plain truth.”
However, Meadows pointed out that it’s not just up to Pyongyang’s general attitude toward the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The added complication for North Korea is that, even if the country was to open tomorrow, almost everybody must enter via Russia or China. So, [they] must also satisfy the restrictions in place to pass through one [or] both of these countries,” he said.
Overall, the DPRK’s historically cautious approach to epidemics means that travelers should lower their expectations about when they may be able to visit the country again.
“We think that the DPRK will be one of the last countries in the world to open its borders to tourism, or at least to non-Chinese tourism,” said Rayco Vega of the Shenyang-based KTG Tours. “Once there is a vaccine, they will wait a few months before reopening the borders.”
“Initially, I had thought that [borders would reopen] March 2021 at the earliest. But given the current situation around the world, it would not surprise me if tours to Westerners will resume much later,” Vega added.
Faced with the long border closures, the four travel agencies all stated that they have been forced to shift operations considerably.
“We have not been able to operate a tour since early January, so it is pretty devastating,” Cockerell said, adding that his firm is in “a kind of semi-hibernation.”
Beard of YPT said that his company is diversifying to mitigate the risk of not being able to provide customers with DPRK tours.
“For months, we’ve been expecting and preparing for tourism around the world to first open up regionally,” he said.
Despite the grim prospects, operators are determined that they will not to give up on tours to the DPRK.
“We have no thoughts of stopping our work in North Korea,” Meadows said.
Vega of KTG agreed: “We will wait this out,” he said.
Edited by Kelly Kasulis
North Korea tour operators told NK News on Tuesday that they believe the country won't open its borders for tourists until at least some time in 2021 — far longer than was expected when the COVID-19 novel coronavirus emerged in January.
North Korea was the first country to stop international travel almost six months ago. Now, travel company representatives said Pyongyang's conservative approach to health epidemics means a longtime border closure is now likely on the horizon.